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CLT&G Update
Monday, July 13, 1998

The Lawrence Eagle-Tribune
Sunday, July 12, 1998

News & Views

Making a farce of democracy
By Ed Achorn

A man of great political sagacity wondered aloud in my presence last week whether it really matters who wins the sticker campaign for John D. O'Brien's state senate seat.

I argued it does. "I suppose," he said with a smile, not sounding very convinced.

I think I know what he means.

The Massachusetts Legislature certainly makes a farce of democracy.

It is controlled almost entirely by two men, the House speaker and the Senate president, who strive to act like tin-pot tyrants. They use each chamber as a rubber stamp, and they limit public involvement as much as they possibly can.

They hoard information like gold. The leadership has even been known to issue the ultimatum: Forget about getting any help from the Legislature if you let the press -- i.e., the general public -- find out about it.

On Beacon Hill, individual members, including most state senators, have almost no say in anything. It is a remarkable thing to behold. The fix is almost always in.

And the worst part of it all is: The public puts up with it. Indeed, we keep electing people who scorn our interests, break promises, choke off public participation and make a joke of democracy. The number of uncontested races this fall should be a scandal, but isn't.

Yes, I know. It's glorious, blazing July. The beaches beckon. The economy is booming. We're busy at work, busier at home. We just don't care what the Legislature does.

The powers on Beacon Hill love that sentiment.

It is why they are able to sit on an unexpected $1 billion windfall from taxpayers, refusing to give it back.

In 1989, when the Legislature needed money to dig the state out of a financial crisis or its own making, it hiked the long-standing Massachusetts income tax from 5 percent to 5.95 percent. That hike, lawmakers promised, was "temporary." It would only last until the state got out of the immediate crisis.

It is nine years later. Last month alone, the state confiscated a record $1.6 billion from taxpayers, 14 percent more than June last year, and $300 million more than expected for the month.

Any budget crisis is long, long, long over.

And still these politicians hoard the money that families badly need, straining to get by each month even with two incomes. From their lordly perches, the leaders look down on average people as ignoramuses and suckers.

But I still have faith in the remarkable system of government that John Adams and his colleagues handed down to us. It may be folly, but I will always believe that information -- truth -- has the power to change minds, right wrongs and, perhaps someday, even shake the arrogant from their thrones.

It begins with the people we elect. We have to demand more open, responsive and honest leaders, eager to share the information they have. We must refuse to put up with liars and backroom plotters.

So, yes, I think it does matter.

Ed Achorn is executive editor of the Eagle-Tribune. Please feel free to contact him by phone at (978) 685-1000, by mail at Box 100, Lawrence, MA, 01942, or by e-mail at

The Lawrence Eagle-Tribune
Sunday, July 12, 1998


It's time to start screaming


Massachusetts officials are debating how much of a $1 billion budget surplus to refund to taxpayers and how much to spend.


The so-called surplus is really an overcharge paid by taxpayers. They should get it all back, with interest.

You discover the bill collector overcharged you. You paid several hundred dollars too much. "Tough luck," says the bill collector. "It's mine."

You would scream.

So why aren't more people screaming in Massachusetts?

State taxpayers overpaid their bill this year by almost $1 billion. The surplus is almost $300 per taxpayer.

A big reason they overpaid is that the state "temporarily" jacked up the tax rate by 20 percent in 1989 because it had foolishly spent itself into a hole.

The higher rate was supposed to be cut back again once the crisis was over. But it remains as the state rolls in its $1 billion tax surplus.

State officials want to keep it all, or as much as they think they can get away with. Sooner or later, they will spend it.

Local lawmakers say they favor giving back more of the money, in the form of a tax cut that will result in bigger refunds next year.

But they doubt it will happen, in part because people aren't screaming,

"My door is not getting beaten down by people saying, 'I want a tax cut,'" says Rep. Bradley H. Jones Jr., R-North Reading, who favors a substantial cut.

Why aren't voters screaming?

David Tuerck, economics chairman and executive director of The Beacon Hill Institute at Suffolk University, thinks it may be because many people think a surplus is a good thing.

Unlike, say, an overcharge.

"Unfortunately, the average taxpayer thinks running a surplus means lawmakers are doing a good job managing our finances. This is far from the truth," says Mr. Tuerck.

In fact, he argues in a new academic study, surpluses reflect poor state revenue forecasts -- and lost opportunities to cut taxes earlier.

A surplus is, in reality, an overcharge: Massachusetts government took more from taxpayers than it provided.

Mr. Tuerck thinks the state should return all or most of it to taxpayers, with interest. "That would be a way of holding their feet to the fire," he says.

We agree.

It's time to make them start screaming.

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